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‘Departures’ Transcends Sentiment With Dignity

"Departures" is predictable, sentimental and not as complex as it would like you to believe.

Then why did I like it so much? In large part because of the acting by Masahiro Motoki as Daigo, a man desperate for work who lands a job that pays well but makes him a pariah. But also because of what that job is and what it means - bringing a dignity to death that transcends cultural taboos. Transcends them too readily, frankly, but director Yojiro Takita's heart is in the right place. The movie won this year's Oscar for best foreign-language picture.

Daigo is a cellist whose orchestra goes bust, so he moves with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) back to his small hometown. Happy but broke, they live in the bar his late mother owned, shut down since her death a couple of years before. Daigo's father abandoned the family long ago, leaving only fuzzy memories.

Daigo sees an ad in the paper: "Departures." Some sort of travel agency, perhaps?

Hardly.

The job entails departures of a much different kind. As in, the big one: death.

Daigo goes to work for Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), helping him clean dead bodies and perform rituals that prepare them for burial. The work is considered so distasteful that his friends shun him. He can't even bring himself to tell Mika what he does.

But he doesn't mind the work, particularly, and he is good at it. And his respect for his duties grows as he watches Sasaki - normally a straight-shooter, almost cynical - respectfully, lovingly go about his business. Theirs is that odd sort of work that everyone needs eventually but no one wants to do. Yet done right and done well, there is a dignity to it that is immensely rewarding, and that's something Daigo taps into.

His friends and wife are a tougher sell, alas. But "Departures" is not the kind of movie whose truths, while genuine, are hard-won. In that regard, it's not the equal of "Waltz with Bashir," one of the films it defeated for the Academy Award ("Bashir" was the odds-on favorite), and a better movie.

But "Departures" is plenty good in its own right. There are a few groan-out-loud moments of heavy-handedness - Daigo playing his cello beneath snowy mountains, for one. But the winning nature of the performances outweighs Takita's more obvious choices.

The optimism that the beautiful Hirosue brings to her role doesn't mean she's a pushover; Mika takes a stand that is believable, if difficult for Western audiences to understand. Yamazaki's Sasaki is both weary and wise. But it's Motoki's performance that the film depends on, and he carries it off beautifully. Daigo is the soldier-on type, something Motoki brings to the character without making him boring or staid. Daigo, too, will be changed by his work, just as he changes others.

Motoki's open face and demeanor perfectly capture the transformation. He's the best thing about "Departures" and elevates it beyond what it otherwise would have been.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material.

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